In my presentation about Cronenberg's A History of Violence I discussed the human relationships, the importance of recurring scenes and the question of genetics, parental example and conscious choice. Cronenberg's movie is extremely complex and there are still plenty of topics which can be further analysed, so this time I would like to examine topics like the question of identity or the nature of violence. Furthermore, as A History of Violence is said to be no typical Cronenbergian movie, I would like to compare it with one of his earlier, more characteristic movies, eXistenZ, and demonstrate with it the above statement.
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When we first meet the Stall family, we have no idea that violence will have something to do with one of the members. Cronenberg uses very professionally a kind of diverting action by introducing first the two mob guys whose appearance will have such vital consequences. The Stall family seems to be a model family with a happy life in a small town. Tom Stall is running a successful, little diner, has two model children and a beautiful, clever wife, with whom their relationship is just as content and intimate as it was 20 years ago in the beginning of their marriage. His wife is certainly satisfied with their life together and thinks that her husband is the best man in the world. Their life changes significantly as the plot develops. One evening the two mob figures, which can be seen in the first scene arrive in Millbrook and go into Tom's diner. When they attack the staff, Tom Stall transforms in no time into a local hero and killing the two assaulters saves the lives of those present. Of course, these events put Tom immediately into the limelight; his picture appears in the newspaper and reporters arrive in Millbrook to make an interview with him. The family hopes that this curiosity will soon wane, however it rather leads to the turning point in their life. In a few days time some more mob guys appear in the diner under the leadership of a certain Carl Fogarty, claiming that they know Tom, who is indeed not Tom but Joey and is from Philadelphia. Although Tom denies everything they are not willing to take notice of it and get off the family even after the warning of the local sheriff. There is a turning point in Tom's attitude when Fogarty and his man catch Jack after a quarrel between him and his father. They offer to let Jack go if Tom is willing to go with them to Philadelphia for a "trip down Memory Lane".
Although with Jack's help Tom manages to kill all the three mob guys, this is the point in the movie when it becomes clear both for Tom's family and for the viewers that he must have been Joey once. Later we learn that most probably he was born into a gangster family and naturally he also became a violent figure, however when he grew older he decided to give up the way he lived before and spent three years becoming Tom. He decided to take on the name Stall, simply because it was available. It was his meeting with his future wife Edie that helped him to take leave from Joey and adopt a normal lifestyle. Tom seems to be able to draw a distinct line between the two periods of his life when he says that it was Joey who did those violent actions and never Tom. When we watch the events Tom has already spent almost as many years being Tom as being Joey. But is it possible to leave behind everything and become a completely new person from one day to another? Watching the film, it is, however in Tom's case it had an influence not only on his life but also on his family's. It is especially interesting to examine this question from Edie's and the childrens point of view: "What do you do when you discover that your husband or father has concealed everything about his early life? Was he lying to you, or protecting you? Did you love someone who didn't really exist?" (Roger Ebert, 2005). Looking at these question the confusion and shock of the family is easily understandable, but on the other hand, we have to mention that on the evening when the two criminals showed up in the diner it was Joey who saved Tom. If Tom hadn't been Joey earlier, most probably he would have been killed in that incident.
It is also interesting to observe how Tom transforms back to Joey when he returns to Philadelphia. The two characters are absolutely different: Tom is a classical, stoic American patriarch while Joey is an active, strong, effective anti-hero (Beaty, 2008.). Going back to Philadelphia and transform once again into Joey is necessary und unavoidable for Tom as he wants to protect his family from the fatal consequences of his brother's visit into Millbrook. This way, he has no other choice than to go but it is also important to mention that his only motif is to get back safely and repair his life with his broken family.
It is well-known that A History of violence is not a typical Cronenbergian film, it is difficult to establish even its genre. It can easily be a thriller, action-movie, or a family drama containing horror elements. According to Beaty (2008), the movie is about disguises and a network of lies. Its core story is about a man masking his true identity. "Tom Stall isn't what he first appears to be and the film isn't what it first appears to be."(p.12). This leads us to ask two main question during and after the film: 1. Who is Tom Stall? 2. What really is this film? For the second question David Cronenberg gave the following answer: "A History of Violence is a kind of inside-out version of what I normally do" (Beaty, 2008, p.15).
Last but not least, it is also important to mention that playing such a double character is no easy task. Viggo Mortensen made a very good job and it was not by accident that Cronenberg fixed his choice on him: "I need a kind of eccentricity that is more typical of a character actor than a leading man and yet still has a leading man presence and charisma." (Beaty, 2008, p.21). David Cronenberg had to find an actor who could play with equal skill both a small-town man and a violent criminal and as Beaty mentions it was Mortensen who "combined both traits of the leading man and the character actor" (p.21).
Already the title of Cronenberg's movie contains the keywords of its story. The title 'A History of Violence' lets the viewers to suspect a number of things about the film. This title can mean at least three things. It can refer to the historical custom of settling disputes by using violence (e.g. war, duals), but it can also refer to a person having a history of violence, that is, a past full of violent actions. In addition, it can refer to the fact that throughout the evolution violence was carried on from father to son, from generation to generation (Ebert, 2005). I think at least two of these topics can be found in the movie.
Throughout the history of humanity, violence was always present. We are all naturally partial to violence even if in our day committing violence is no more acceptable except for some good reasons. Such reasons are, for example, when we want to defend ourselves, someone else or our property. In the US, for example, you are allowed to defend your property with a gun. Another acceptable - however still controversial - reason for committing violence is war and wartime situations and a third one is when we use violence as a punishment, although this is not everywhere an acceptable form of punishment (for example, death penalty is in practice only in some countries of the world).
Even if acting violently is not acceptable in a number of situations, we cannot break away from it and more or less we all have a propensity for it. We watch it in the cinema, in television, there is a whole movie industry built on it with innumerable action, thriller and horror films (at this point I have to mention that A History of Violence is also one of them). Throughout the history - before the emergence of the movie industry - such events as bloody executions and torturing of convicts served as public entertainment. Warfare and duals were another examples. As Desson Thomson (2005) writes, A History of Violence forces us to confront this Pavlovian conditioning to violence. According to scientist, this attachment of ours to violence comes from our animal past, our need to find food and defend ourselves by killing the enemy if we want to survive. Genetically this propensity for violence is still in us and it is carried over from generation to generation (Baumgarten, 2005).
However, even if violence is in connection with our animal past and animal instincts we have something else that makes us different from animals and this is the ability to make conscious choices and say no to our instincts. This ability together with a good family example can lead to the right path. As David Cronenberg put it:
Genetically, I have to say yes, it is obvious that people have a propensity for violence. It comes from our animal past, our need to survive. But we also have that other thing, that imagination to abstract and say: well we can imagine a world in which we don't do these things that we find abhorrent - by negotiation, by diplomacy, by compassion, by empathy. (O'Hehir, 2005)
Tom's/Joey's and Jack's example illustrates very well the above idea. From the movie it becomes clear that most probably Joey was born into a gangster family where violence was an everyday thing. On the one hand, this served as an example for him; while on the other hand, violence was also in his genes. This way, it was almost unavoidable for him to become just the same as his family. However, as he grew older he became able to make a conscious choice and decided to leave behind his previous lifestyle.
As opposed to this, Jack, his son was born into a normal family and had a normal parental example. As a consequence, he could avoid becoming violent even if it was also in his genes via his father. But the importance of example is very well demonstrated by the events in the film if take a closer look on them. Jack is still very young and therefore easy to influence. So when he sees what a hero his father becomes after he kills those two criminals his attitude towards violence changes radically, although until then he tried to avoid confrontation and violent situations. This is what Cronenberg said about him and about the question of our propensity for violence in an interview:
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You have the story of the son who avenges himself against a bully (...) When we first meet him, the boy seems to be a pretty good politician. he can talk his way out of a violent confrontation. He uses his wits, he uses his humour and (...) therefore he avoids violence. (...) Then he sees the celebrity his father attains after his acts of violence and he's intrigued by that. (...) Are we talking about a genetic propensity to violence or is it a cultural one? He feels that he wouldn't mind some of that celebrity on his own level. Therefore, the next opportunity he has, he ends up committing violence. He's unrepentant afterwards and does connect it to his father (O'Hehir, 2005).
According to Beaty, Cronenberg used the violent scenes in a conscious way. It is not by accident that we see mutilated bodies and faces but rather because the director wanted the viewers to see the brutal consequences of violence. This is not characteristic of every action film. Cronenberg wanted us to realize what we see in those films is only half the truth, that action films build on our desire to see violence in an attractive way. As opposed to those films, Cronenberg wanted to show us what real violence looks like and what the real consequences of it are. As Renée Rodrigues put it: he "forces you to consider what it means exactly, to shoot someone in the face and how once that line is crossed, it becomes much easier to do it again" (Beaty, 2008, p.7).
As violence is a crucial point in the movie, mob figures have a very important role in it. The two such figures are Carl Fogarty, played by Ed Harris and Richi Cusack, played by William Hurt, both of them famous and highly acclaimed actors. Although they spend only very short time on screen, both of them have a critical role. According to Beaty, for the role of Richi Cusack Cronenberg did not need a typical gangster or a cliché mob figure but a character that can be taken seriously. He had to be "compelling, convincing, charismatic, scary, profound" and ironic at the same time (2008, p.24). William Hurt was a perfect choice.
A History of Violence versus eXistenZ, a typical Cronenberg movie
If we take a closer look on the list of Cronenberg's previous films, it is clear that A History of Violence is not a typical one. Before 2005 Cronenberg made mainly abstract, weird films, the topics of which dealt with scientific, psychological, medical or virtual issues. Although a slight minority of the viewers praised loudly these films, most of them were no box-offices. In a way, this is understandable as these films were not the typical Hollywood movies. They were difficult to apprehend, had multiple layers and needed the viewer to think hard if he wanted to understand the message. Of course, this is also characteristic of A History of Violence, in which we can find a number of topics relevant for discussion, for example the nature and the consequences of violence, genetic heritage, the changing nature of personal relationships, the question of identity or the importance of parental example, just to mention a few.
Cronenberg's 1999 movie eXistenZ is a very good example for his earlier and more characteristic style. There are huge differences between eXistenZ and A History of Violence. eXistenZ is taking place in a dark future where people are no more contented with their real life, instead they are obsessed with playing virtual games. These virtual games are not the nowadays fashionable mechanical computer games, but instead organic virtual reality games. According to Howe (1999), "In this society, people get 'bioported', so they can 'plug in' to the largest game system of ecstatic hyper-reality. They tap directly into their nervous systems, by connecting their 'bioports' to flesh-textured pods (containing the game software, as it were) by means of an umbilical-like 'Umby-Cord'". In this near future there are two big video game companies competing with each other and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) became a kind of superstar by inventing the latest world famous game, called eXistenZ. The opening scene of the movie takes place in a church where a small group of people is testing her game, when Allegra is attacked and has to flee with the help of security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law). The movie becomes weirder and weirder when they find out that Allegra was shot with an organic pistol made of bones and teeth and this is why it wasn't detected by Ted. A bit later Allegra discovers that most probably her pod containing the only copy of her game was damaged. She wants to test it by playing the game with Ted when he admits that he has no bioport saying: "I have this phobia about having my body penetrated surgically." After Allegra convinces him that getting bioported will change his life they head to a gas station where a service station operator performs the bizarre procedure (Howe, 1999). After overcoming some more difficulties there is nothing to prevent them from playing. From this point it becomes more and more difficult to decide what is reality and what is game and in the virtual world Ted and Allegra discover new characteristics of their personality. At the end of the film it becomes clear that the viewer was intentionally mislead when we find out that we have seen the world of the virtual game right from the beginning.
The world of eXistenZ is altogether different from the world of A History of Violence. Not knowing it as a fact, the unsuspecting viewer would never presume that both of these films were directed by one person. While A History of violence mainly concentrates on issues like violence, identity and the family in a moment of crisis, eXistenZ examines the individual in transformation and the question 'What is reality?'. (Beaty, 2008) As opposed to eXistenZ, A History of Violence is taking place in these days, the events follow each other in strict chronological order, it shows the real world and we do not have to suspect what is reality and what is not. Compared to eXistenZ, the plot is easy to follow and understand. There are major differences in visual and sound effects, too. On the one hand, while in A History of Violence music plays an important role in many decisive scenes (like the closing one), it is not characteristic of eXistenZ. On the other hand, while the first is characterised by colourful, clear images, the second one has mainly dark and dim pictures as a lot of events happen at night.
But why is A History of Violence so different from the characteristic movies of Cronenberg? As I have already written above, even if some people praised his earlier works, these became almost never box-offices. By 2005 already two decades passed since his last big success and according to Beaty (2008, p. 19), "Although critics and film festival audiences were more and more fond of his work the commercial cinema audience turned away from him." By this time Cronenberg was very short of money and he knew that he was desperately in need of a hit to raise funds. Basically, that is why he decided to direct A History of Violence. "I needed the money"- he said. (Beaty, 2008, p. 19).
A History of Violence is a "radical break from the past" (Beaty, 2008, p. 11). Compared to eXistenZ, it was made in Cronenberg's most realist style and according to Beaty, it is not only Tom Stall/Joey Cusack in the film who is playing a role but also David Cronenberg who is playing the role of a Hollywood filmmaker:
"In the end we are left with a film in which a maker of some of the most grotesque films in history suppresses the grotesqueries of the plot in order to tell the story of a man who is suppressing his true (and rather grotesque) nature. It is striking that, in playing to Middle America, Cronenberg hided his true self in a film about a man hiding his true self in the middle of America." (Beaty, 2008, p. 12).
In my essay I wanted to demonstrate that Cronenberg's A History of Violence is a very complex film, having many topics fit for discussion and debate, of which I wrote now extensively only about three: the nature of violence, identity and the differences between A History of Violence and other films of Cronenberg. I hope that with my presentation and my essay together I could illustrate that although David Cronenberg is not a common film director, he deserves to be called one of the most important Canadian film directors, whose aim is not only to entertain but also to raise significant topics and make his audience think about them.
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